"Out of Gas" sees Modest Mouse writing the kind of track that would later bring them wider success and the ire of many critics and longtime fans: a pop song. For the record, it's a good thing.
“Out of Gas” marks something of a détente in The Lonesome Crowded West, an emotional cooling. Isaac Brock’s gently-whammied riff bounces along at a leisurely pace, as his bandmates follow suit and keep things toned down. The riff, as the central focus on the song, is as subtle of an earworm as anything else Brock produces on the record. In other words, “Out of Gas” marks the first real foray of The Lonesome Crowded West into straightforward pop songwriting. You can trace that pop streak through the band’s early catalog fairly easily, from its beginnings in “Breakthrough” on to “Out of Gas” and “Polar Opposites” (we’ll get to that soon enough) and into “Third Planet” and “Paper Thin Walls”. The rest of that trajectory, of course, should be well known to anyone who owned a radio in 2004.
Critics who dismiss Modest Mouse’s pop sensibilities generally began to do so after the band started to have some commercial success. That goes to say that fans embraced older songs like “Out of Gas” (and those Moon & Antarctica tracks up there, even more so) readily and without complaint (it’s also worth mentioning, if we’re taking this path, that We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank seems continually misunderstood by many listeners, derided as a too-polished “radio record” when it in fact holds the band’s most aggressive—and aggressively loud—material since, well, The Lonesome Crowded West). Whatever controversy the hit single “Float On” and its ilk would later create, the fact remains that Modest Mouse was, from the very outset, able to craft remarkable pop songs when it so chose. “Out of Gas” is one such gem, easy to overlook, surrounded as it is by show-stopping tracks on the rest of this album. Of course, it’s that very restraint that makes it successful.
Thematically, the song fits perfectly into The Lonesome Crowded West’s car-and-road-obsessed lyrics. Brock, a perennially restless songwriter, changes things up enough to keep the theme interesting here. If his problem on the rest of the album is one of amplitude—too much open highway, too many people, too many cars waiting around—the problem here is the opposite. “Out of gas”, he sings, “Out of road / Out of car / I don’t know how I’m gonna go”. That feeling is a familiar one to anyone restless enough to hop in the car when there’s nowhere, really, even to go. Brock is sick of the perpetual motion in which he so often finds himself in his songs, but once he’s without the option to move, he discovers he’s just as anxious when stationary.
The “You will come soon, too / You will come down too soon” wordplay in the song’s chorus gives us another example of Brock the lyricist focused incessantly on cycles, both verbal and physical. He’s implying that his listener will find himself or herself in the same position soon enough, coming down from the high that an addiction to motion and restless activity provides. It will not, he expects, be pleasant for you, either.